Church of England

Shock! Justin Welby admits that he believes in God

This is of course a ridiculous headline, but what makes it ridiculous? There are plenty of people who don’t believe in God after all.

We make assumptions all of the time and a common one is that our leaders are in some way just a little bit superhuman. Too often we expect a level of perfection that few of us could match. Unless they are a wonderful orator, intelligent, reasonably good looking (or exceptionally if they are a woman) with a decent dress sense and a history of relationships that are without blemish, we are left disappointed or worse. Just look at poor Ed Miliband. He can say what he likes, but he can’t get away from his resemblance to Nick Park’s Wallace. It will forever hinder his political career.

Is it the same for our religious leaders. Can we only allow them to have a concrete and unshakeable faith? Judging by the reaction to the revelations that Justin Welby, our Archbishop of Canterbury has occasions when he struggles to make sense of his belief in God, it would appear to be the case  – in the media’s eyes at least.

Having been asked if he ever had doubts during a service at Bristol Cathedral, he replied, “Yes I do. I mean there are moments, sure, where you think ‘is there a God?’, ‘Where is God? The other day I was praying over something while I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there,’ which is not probably what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

Are such thoughts really of such significance that they deserve to make the headlines? Apparently so. ‘Justin Welby doubts the existence of God!’ announced the papers and the BBC. Has it therefore been decided somewhere in the ether that Justin Welby has to have utter confidence in all matters of things spiritual? This says far more about a lack of appreciation of the nature of faith by those reporting his words than it does about Justin Welby himself.

If those who bring us the news and the majority of those who consume it had any idea what the Bible says, they would see that doubt is a continually recurring theme. The Psalms are full of it:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1,2)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1,2)

But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. (Psalm:88:13-15)

Great heroes from the pages of the Bible, including King David, Elijah, Job and ‘doubting’ Thomas had desperate moments of questioning God. John the Baptist had a major crisis of faith regarding Jesus’ divinity, despite having waited his adult life to baptise him as the Messiah. Even Jesus had his moment of turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So Justin Welby is in good company. He is doing little more than being frankly honest about his relationship with God. There are things he finds wonderful about his faith and others he finds frustrating and challenging. He is not trying to pretend to be something he isn’t and most Christians will find his words resonating with their own experiences.

If anyone were to be brave enough to ask Pope Francis the same question, there is a very good chance he would say the same things. Mother Theresa who has been held aloft as one of the greatest modern Christians once wrote: “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long and long for God. … The torture and pain I can’t explain.”

If we refuse to question our beliefs, whether they be religious or otherwise, the risk of fundamentalism increases dramatically. There is a reason why the religious right in the US is treated with such scepticism over here. Would those who hold to the ideologically blinkered views of groups like Islamic State be committing the evil horrors we have been seeing if they were open to questioning their beliefs and willing to entertain doubt?

Why then too, do we refuse to allow our political leaders to admit to doubts in what they do without penalising them? Can we envisage a political climate where we see similar levels of genuine honesty from David Cameron? How much does he doubt himself in his abilities and role? We are unlikely to know the truth until he publishes his memoirs sometime in the distant future. Would not a bit more vulnerability actually be a good thing in politics here in our country?

But back to Justin Welby. The media might have lapped up his comments during the interview on his brief flashes of uncertainty, but there was plenty else he said. Welby has good reason to question God; he had a very dysfunctional childhood, lost a child in a car crash and has seen the worst excesses of bloody wars firsthand and yet (and this is by far the most important point) he still believes in God and chooses to follow him above all else:

“It is not about feelings, it is about the fact that God is faithful and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful when we are not. He loves us when we get exactly into the wrong place. He doesn’t say sort yourself out and I’ll find you, He comes alongside us and says let’s go from here. So there may be people whose lives are complete havoc and they know they’ve really messed up and God doesn’t say: ‘Once you’re out of the mess we’ll move on together.’ He says, ‘I’m right here, let’s start dealing with this together.'”

Justin Welby, like millions of other Christians around the world, believes in a God who can handle our doubts and will draw close enough to bring us through them in one piece and all the stronger for the experience. In the words of the hugely popular worship song by Northern Ireland’s Rend Collective:

In my wrestling and in my doubts
In my failures You won’t walk out
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea
You are the peace in my troubled sea

In the silence, You won’t let go
In my questions, Your truth will hold
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea
You are the peace in my troubled sea

My Lighthouse, my lighthouse
Shining in the darkness, I will follow You
My Lighthouse, my Lighthouse
I will trust the promise,
You will carry me safe to shore